on Being a Lady Laird
Joanna’s grandfather bought the Attadale Estate in 1952, and having spent childhood holidays there she and her husband moved up from London five years ago. Her background is in advertising and marketing, which has enabled her to know a little about a lot, working on titles ranging from Classic Cars and Flight International to English Garden and English Home. Her parents have been there for thirty years, putting into the hands of a Trust this 30,000 acre property in Wester Ross served by a request stop on the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh railway. With a House that dates from 1755, its origins lay in the ill-gotten gains of opium dealer Alexander Matheson who, having built himself a castle at Plockton, let out Attadale to the Schroder family of merchant bankers. They started the Gardens, planting the rhododendrons with which these became most associated and running Attadale as a traditional Highland estate which after the Second World War found that it could no longer rely on cheap labour.
Grandfather came on the scene just as other estates were changing hands, with the Queen Mother acquiring the Castle of Mey, and created a proper farm producing eggs and turkeys with a combined harvester. Too small to be self-sufficient, the Estate no longer farms, but the tenant of its land supplies Highland cattle which help maintain its traditional look. Gales in the 1980s clear-felled woodland, and a new direction beckoned with creation of a water garden and holiday cottages. With Joanna’s brother far too busy having the Treasury to run, she decided that a little television exposure might do no harm, so invited Giles Coren to cover stalking for Our Food. In considering Lady Lairds she was concerned not to come across as a stupid toff, and allowed cameraman Chris access over a full year, making friends as it became clear that he was not out to get them. The best drama is a series of stories, and the programme was able to cover how the Lochcarron Highland Games withstood the weather, the retirement of the Estate’s veteran stalker who was succeeded by his son and coverage of her own family, where fears that her mother might say something politically incorrect got no further than dismissive comments about actor Robert Carlyle’s performance locally in Hamish Macbeth and criticism of her father’s meanness. Attadale got 1.8 seconds in a whisky advertisement with David Beckham.
Mainstays of the Estate are heading by stalking, which yields 60/70 stags and the same number of hinds whose meat is sold through Highland Venison as a quality-assured product of which, it being healthy and low-fat, they cannot sell enough. Salmon farming requires the river to be in spate, and was in long-term decline until the dedicated efforts of Walt Kindness whose introduction of smolt has brought about a tenfold increase in numbers accompanied by encouragement for anglers to put their catches back. A day ticket on the River Carron costs just £25, and has been endorsed by Prince Charles and by Secret Stations presenter Paul Merton. Forestry was dominated by subsidies encouraging growth of lodgepole pines for pitprops, but with the disappearance of coal-mining the emphasis now is on replacing them with native broadleaved species in association with development of hydro-power and re-establishment of red squirrels. Holiday cottages have been accompanied by local long-term lettings : gone are the days when an advertisement in the Sunday Times would suffice, and with every third home in Lochcarron now a holiday cottage, the Estate has been finding Airbnb effective in attracting especially French holidaymakers.
Attadale Gardens have expanded from opening one day a year under Scotland's Garden Scheme to daily opening from Easter to October. Framing magnificent views of Skye and the surrounding hills and with Himalayan poppies and bamboo reflected in dark pools and sculpture in unexpected places, it is now a painter’s garden with an honesty box which makes it clear that this is not a National Trust for Scotland property while inviting visitors to help themselves to tea and coffee. Helped by the weak pound and by North Coast 500, visitors last year were up 26% to 6500 which is however insignificant compared with 480,000 at Eilean Donan Castle and 850,000 at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Lochcarron Weavers draw in some visitors, the Hebridean Princess calls six or seven times a year, there are four ScotRail trains each weekday in either direction and the Royal Scotsman comes by but its customers must alight at Plockton owing to the short platform at Attadale. Springwatch parties have come by train, and admission is free for local residents. The Royal Horticultural Society has declared Attadale a partner garden, and the success of Inverewe provides inspiration. A bothy eight miles up in the hills offers overnight accommodation except in the stalking season with spring-fed lavatories, a sink and wood-burning stove for walkers who can scale two Munros on the Cape Wrath walking itinerary. Four hydro-electric schemes have given the benefit of surveys into species such as char, and a telecom mast on former railway land provides the Estate's most constant source of income. The Lochcarron Highland Games attract 2-3000 visitors though in bad weather the locals don’t come, and with a mix of heavy sports, dancing and pipe-bands just about break even.
The South West Ross Arts and Eats Trail encourages visitors to explore, and An Carranach is a monthly magazine of record with seven hundred subscribers. Joanna and husband Alec run the local deer management organisation, and are active in Scottish Land and Estates, which is the unified voice that represents all those who own land and rural businesses in Scotland. She also helps lead Discover Scottish Gardens which has proprietors working together to make up for past neglect of garden tourism, Visit Scotland having been more interested in whisky and golf, and from modest beginnings was able this year to attend the Chelsea Flower Show.